Prague, 22 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- When Communism collapsed in 1989, millions of tourists immediately began streaming into "Golden Prague," a dazzling city of fairy-tale architecture that suddenly became a highly fashionable tourist destination.
But as soon as the visitors began flashing around their dollars and Deutschemarks, a new civic sport sprang up: cheating the tourists. Although the game is widely practiced in the pubs and restaurants, especially in the city's center, its true masters are the city's taxi drivers. Or to put it more accurately, a small proportion of extremely dishonest taxi drivers whose audacious rip-offs have given the entire city a bad reputation among disillusioned tourists from all over Europe and North America.
Dishonest taxi drivers are -- of course -- not the exclusive property of Prague. In Budapest, taxis hailed on the street are up to five times more expensive than one called from a dispatcher -- but even the dishonest fares are within reason by Western standards. In St. Petersburg, the taxis that hang around outside the city's luxury hotels charge several times more than ordinary taxis, but the fare is negotiated in advance and drivers stick to the bargain they've made.
A well-traveled RFE/RL correspondent says that nowhere else are the taxis swindles as outrageous as in Prague. While Prague city authorities and taxi drivers themselves emphasize that most are honest, the few who do make a living by cheating tourists do so on an incredible scale .
Prague newspapers have recently reported that a driver attempted to charge an unsuspecting American visitor the equivalent of $250 for a one-kilometer ride from the city's Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) to the Hotel Intercontinental.
Although that case is hard to verify, other cheating on a massive scale is better documented. One American engineer told RFE/RL of being charged 1,500 Czech crowns (about $50) for a very short ride from the Main Train Station to the Hotel Intercontinental.
In a case reported by the Prague newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes, New York salesman Rodolfo Zappanta, making his second trip to Prague last summer, negotiated a fare of 500 Crowns (about $16) to go from the Holesovice train station to his downtown hotel. When they arrived, however, the driver insisted on being paid three times more. Zappanta called the police, but when they never showed up, he finally agreed to pay the driver 750 Crowns ($24) for the four-kilometer journey.
Such audacious cheating has attracted worldwide bad publicity for Prague. The American newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, recently published a long story warning American tourists about Prague taxi drivers. The British magazine The Economist, which has a worldwide circulation, recently warned Prague authorities that unless they take steps quickly, "Czech tourism will acquire a reputation it could find hard to shake off."
Czech Tourist Authority director Libuse Jandikova agrees that flagrant cheating of tourists is giving the city a bad reputation. She worries that many potential visitors to Prague "may finally choose some more safe destination."
The problem is that Prague taxis are licensed, but their fares are not regulated. They are allowed to charge whatever they want, as long as they clearly post their rates on their doors. Honest, reasonable taxis charge between 15 and 20 Crowns per kilometer. Others charge as much as 200 or even 500 Crowns per kilometer.
Czechs and foreign residents of the capital know to avoid these taxis -- most often found near tourist destinations such as Wenceslas Square or the Charles Bridge -- so their main prey is uninformed foreign tourists.
The outrageous cheating of these drivers recently prompted an unprecedented open letter to Prague Mayor Jan Koukal by prominent Czech emigrees, including film director Milos Forman, and a former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, William Luers. They warned that the city's reputation as a tourism and business destination is being needlessly damaged by the dishonest taxi drivers, and urged the mayor to bring "civilized order" to the taxi scene.
When taxi fares were deregulated a year ago, state authorities said the functioning of the free market would protect consumers. Since that has obviously not been the case, the finance ministry recently bowed to public pressure and passed regulations that will allow cities once again to set taxi fares.
Prague Mayor Koukal, who, incidentally, says he has not taken a taxi since 1994, worked together with the Prague city council to set a modest limit of 17 Crowns (55 cents) per kilometer for taxis as of Dec. 1. But few Prague residents believe the taxi drivers who have been getting rich off the tourists will now settle for the new low fares. There are already calls for closer city inspections of taxis to make sure that a one-kilometer taxi ride can no longer cost more than a night's lodgings in the city's best hotel.